Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Charity begins at home

P.T. Barnum said "There's a sucker born every minute." Just don't go looking for them on the web.

Consider the case of Holden Karnofsky. A well paid, young financial hotshot, Mr. Karnofosky was hunting for a charity worthy of his donation. Put off by a lack of reliable, transparent information (and sensing a market need) he enlisted his friend Elie Hassenfeld to form GiveWell. Borrowing a page from Moodys, their new non-profit began researching, analyzing and ranking charitable organizations according to their effectiveness.

Things went well. They made some noise. Profiled by The New York Times, NPR and by noted philosopher Peter Singer.

Last month, however, Karnofsky was swiftly relieved of his duties as Executive Director of GiveWell by its Board of Directors after a stunning lapse in judgement. Posing as someone looking for a reputable place to donate, and posting under the pseudonym Geremiah, Karnofsky queried users of the blog Ask MetaFilter for guidance on an organization that could reliably vet charities.

All the websites I've seen just have huge lists of charities with some basic financial data/ratings. I'd ideally like to hear from someone who has put some time into examining/comparing charities and can recommend someone who's good. Any ideas?
After a commenters suggested Charity Navigator, a GiveWell competitor, Karnofsky made his move. Assuming a slightly (*ahem*) transparent screen name, HoldenO, he began posting answers to his own question, guiding the "donor" to GiveWell's website. He was busted after gettting the ire up of user Miko, who smelled a rat when HoldenO and Geremiah both seemed to gang up on him. Miko writes:

Is This Transparency? OP with very slim, one-year posting history asks a question about finding a good charity in AskMe, just prior to year-end tax-decision time. Newly registered responder posts a newly formed charity-aggregator/evaluator organization, without mentioning that he is, apparently, one of the two founders. Self-promotional setup leading to self-link? Or am I being too cynical?

No, Miko, it seems you got it exactly right. Mr. Hassenfeld admitted to indulging in similar self-aggrandizing online behavior a week later. And so Messrs. Karnofsky learned the same lesson as John Mackey, namely that if you try to fool the online community, you are trying to fool an extremely savvy demographic.

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